It is an evolving academic discipline. It's a catchword that attracts millions in federal grants.
And, increasingly, it is important to patrons flocking to the free Internet computers in libraries to do supposedly routine errands like applying for unemployment benefits, seeking a new job or contacting the motor vehicle registry
But digital literacy also is a concept that confounds both computer novices, who are frightened just to hit the “Enter” button on their PC keyboards, as well as technology masters, who are eager to signal “Like” on Facebook the moment a new iPhone is unveiled.
What’s more, “digital literacy” isn’t all that easy to define.
This all became clear at a meeting of directors of Rhode Island libraries, organized Sept. 18, 2012 by the state Office of Library and Information Services at the North Scituate Public Library.
On hand were some of the state’s leading experts:
- Dr. Renee Hobbs, founding director of the University of Rhode Island’s new Harrington School of Communication and Media, who is author of books like “Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting and Classroom.”
- Stuart Freiman, broadband program director of the state Economic Development Corporation, who is coordinating a major drive in Rhode Island to train people to use computers and the Internet.
- Shane Sher, program coordinator at AskRI.org – a state-sponsored Internet and phone information service that helps anyone with a question, from a student wrestling with homework assignments to the car owner seeking repair information.
Hobbs’ communication school includes six departments and programs at URI, one of which is the graduate school of library and information studies, a prime training resource for many of the state’s librarians.
She noted that even librarians, who oversee scores of public access computers, who regularly update library Websites and who help patrons use databases, struggle to stay current with emerging technology.
“The learning curve is never ending,” Hobbs told the session.
As a result, in early November the school will sponsor a “Google Hangout” – an Internet forum – about how to keep up with professional literature and discuss “what works and doesn’t work.”
The following month, a similar session will be held about measuring the effectiveness of the work libraries do in helping patrons use computers and on-line resources, asking questions such as “How do we know we are doing the right thing?” And “What does it mean to be digitally literate?”
Freiman, the state economic development agency’s broadband director, said one of his program’s efforts has been to qualify some 80 volunteers to train computer novices at 25 sites across the state, some of them in libraries.
He encouraged library directors to send staffers to the training sessions, saying libraries are in a unique position to help people become proficient with information technology.
“You have what nobody else has, and that’s contact with the community,” he told the library directors, adding that training takes a personal touch.
“The problem with digital literacy,” Freiman said, “is that you can’t use a computer to teach digital literacy, you have to be present; you have to work with somebody; it takes time and patience.”
There is an enormous gap in the expertise of people comfortable with computers and those new to the experience, Freiman said.
It was Amy E. Neilson, director of the Exeter Public Library, who raised one of the thorniest questions:
“What is a layperson’s definition of digital literacy?” Neilson asked. In other words, she said, how do librarians convince their patrons that they have a use for libraries’ troves of on-line databases and other resources.
Library users will say to her: “ ‘Oh, it’s so nice that you offer this. Oh, Amy, you know this, that’s wonderful,’” Neilson said. “But I can’t translate that into ‘This is what it does for you.’”
“How do I get other people to use it?” she asked.
One way of looking at it, Hobbs said, is that digital literacy is culmination of a continuing series of literacies, starting with conversation during the time of Aristotle, followed by print literacy, then visual literacy and computer literacy; so it’s the sum of what someone now needs to be effective in communication.
Another way of describing it, Hobbs said, is by listing four categories: the tools and skills required to use digital media, such as operating a computer mouse; critical analysis of digital information; composing and authoring digital communications; and “digital citizenship,” the ethics of modern communication.
Howard Boksenbaum, chief state library officer, who organized the directors’ meeting, offered a crisp definition: What can someone do with a computer, and how do she or he do it?
Shane Sher, the AskRI.org program coordinator for the Statewide Reference Resource Center, the contract for which was awarded this year by Boksenbaum’s office to the Providence Community Library, which manages the capital city’s nine neighborhood libraries.
Sher, who said later in an interview that he has trained 12,000 people from ages 9 to 93 in computer basics during the past nine years, told the directors’ meeting that a key to digital literacy is understand what each individual needs from the Internet.
A starting place is what someone already knows, Sher said: “If you have a kid come in and say, I only like reading comic books, well, they are still reading and they are still literate.”
Trainers can build on someone’s current skills and interests to move them further on the learning process.
One of the steps AskRI.org has taken since the PCL took over the state Resource Center in July, is to make its Facebook site inviting to young users.
For example, the same week the directors’ conference was taking place, AskRI ran a “Sherlock Holmes Week,” which included an on-line poll about which movie and TV actor has best portrayed the fictional sleuth, while also telling Facebook users about various sources of information about Holmes.
That program started off with this announcement:
“Good morning, Holmesians! Today is the first day of Sherlock Holmes Week here at AskRI! Want to brush up on your knowledge of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's infamous sleuth? We have loads of scholarly articles just waiting for you on the virtual shelves of EBSCO's Literary Reference Center!”
The writer of this Library Report article, when he saw the “EBSCO” mention, didn’t know what it meant. So he logged into the AskRI site from his home laptop computer and, at 8:40 p.m., went to the “live chat with a librarian” section and typed in his question.
The answer came back from AskRI, at 8:41:
“…a database full of magazine and journal articles.”
Elementary, my dear Watson.